Black communities across the country watched in disbelief as a Black New Jersey high school wrestler was forced to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a regional match.
A video showing Andrew Johnson having his hair and his heritage chopped off at a match last month went viral with more than 20 million views on social media. Andrew, a student at Buena Regional High School, had a cover for his hair that he had worn in previous matches; however, Alan Maloney, a White referee, said it wasn’t good enough. Instead, he started the clock, giving Andrew minutes to comply.
Wanting to compete, Johnson begrudgingly allowed team personnel to cut his hair. He is seen crying and visibly shaken in the viral video.
“I don’t care what the rules are,” said Lindy Vincent, co-host of “Two Haute Mamas” podcast on Minnesota’s WCCO Radio online. “If someone is doing that to my child, I’m going down there to speak up for him. I’m not just going to sit in the stands and watch him be humiliated and wronged in such a horrific way.”
The incident hit close to home for Vincent, because like Johnson, her son Dylan has dreadlocks and plays sports for Breck School. She was shocked to find out that Andrew’s parents, Charles and Rosa Johnson, were in the stands.
“For that official to just take some scissors to his head like she was chopping down a bush outside the front door of her home broke my heart. There was no feeling in it for her. She had no compassion for this child. She looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.”
Added Vincent, “This whole incident says a lot about the criminalization of Brown skin and Black culture. This official didn’t just cut off his hair, she chopped off his humanity, as well.”
Vincent was among many across the country who expressed outrage. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he was deeply disturbed by the story.
Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs, who won a gold medal in 2012, called the incident “…an abuse of power, racist, and absolutely shameful.”
Buena Regional School District said Maloney would no longer be officiating games in the district. The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into the referee, and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has barred Maloney from calling any future wrestling matches until an investigation is complete.
The Johnson family has since released a statement saying they are grateful for the outpouring of support and are supportive of their son’s coaches. But, many who viewed the video wondered why the coaches didn’t contest the referee’s ultimatum.
“Where was the coach or the assistant coach or a parent to protect this young man?” asked Ian Cody, whose nephew Malachi is an eighth grade student at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and a member of the school’s wrestling team.
“Why didn’t anyone say anything? That’s disturbing that nobody said anything or spoke up for him. That’s an eye-opener and a red flag for me.”
Cody said he watched the video with Malachi to teach his nephew one important life-lesson: self-advocacy. “What I wanted him to learn from seeing the clip is to stand up for himself and know that he has rights as a student athlete.
“If he feels like he’s in a compromising position, and I’m not there, say something. That’s his right to say something. Say something to the coaches or another adult. Stand up for yourself. That’s what I hope this teaches him.”
Cody added that he was also blown away by Johnson’s dedication in spite of the situation.
“I tried to point out the good, which was this young man’s dedication,” he said. “He got his hair cut, but he was focused and still won his match. That was definitely big of him. This whole situation is so negative that initially I didn’t want to point it out to my nephew, so I tried to look for the good points.”
Jeff Wichern, who owns JJ Trained Wrestling School in Eden Prairie, noted that cutting a wrestler’s hair prior to a match isn’t all that uncommon.
In fact, he said, it happened to him as a teenager. “When I was in high school, I had to have my hair cut on the side of the mat. A referee is supposed to handle this hair situation at weigh-in, but the referees are not always at the weigh-in. At least mine wasn’t on that fateful day. I went out on a mat, the referee saw my hair for the first time and said it was too long. My coach had to cut my hair in order for me to compete.”
But, Wichern said there is no way he would have allowed one of his players to get his hair cut courtside. “I would have forfeited the match and taken care of this at another time, you know, get some other authorities involved to make it a better situation.
“I think the situation was handled wrong just looking at the video,” said Wichern. “I wouldn’t want something like that to happen to one of my wrestlers.”
One thing he does know is that the hair rules in wrestling are outdated. “I hope it opens everyone’s mind that maybe we need to make some different rules as the sport evolves,” he said.
“The rules were put in place so long ago they don’t apply anymore. There are more females wrestling today. There are more people of color wrestling, as well. We have to address these things.”